October 29, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Strong State of a Stateless Al-Qaeda

• While the Islamic State is faced with defending two capital cities under imminent threat, its rival al-Qaeda is faring rather well as a stateless entity

• Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has survived the storm surrounding the cover-up of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s death, as well as the loss of several senior al-Qaeda leaders

• Without claims to territory, al-Qaeda is able to withstand the occasional decapitation drone strike while extending the reach and influence of its affiliates

• While al-Qaeda lacks the social media presence of the Islamic State, its affiliates and operatives have been focused on the long game.


If a terrorist group’s fortunes were truly determined by its popularity on social media, al-Qaeda’s prognosis would be dire. Unfortunately, al-Qaeda is doing quite well, and the trend lines of conflict and chaos across a wide swath of the globe ensure the group’s continued existence and steady growth. Two long-time characteristics of al-Qaeda have enabled the group to survive what was truly a disastrous summer: it does not act as a territory-bound ’state,' and it maintains deep local ties. Al-Qaeda is able to ebb and flow rather than defend territory at great cost, and its ties to the communities in which its affiliates operate allow it to recruit local members and retain their loyalty, regardless of international headlines.

Just a few months ago, al-Qaeda was widely reported to be struggling following the news that the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, had been secretly dead for two years. Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaeda, had pledged bayat (allegiance) to a dead man. The image of al-Qaeda as the world’s most notorious and capable terrorist group was damaged by this revelation, as well as by the relentless social media promotion of its rival, the so-called Islamic State.

More damaging—at least, operationally—was the June 2015 death of the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Nasir al-Wuhayshi. Wuhayshi, considered the number two in al-Qaeda, had been killed in Yemen by a U.S. drone strike. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a senior official of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was reported killed in another drone strike in June—this time in Libya; al-Qaeda recently confirmed the death of Belmokhtar, but not the details of his demise. The group—superficially, perhaps—was a damaged brand.

This month, the news surrounding al-Qaeda is less concerned with Zawahiri’s ability to maintain the cohesion of the group, and more about its long-simmering resurgence in Afghanistan, its powerful affiliates in Yemen and Syria, and the refusal of its affiliate al-Shabaab to accede to repeated overtures from the Islamic State.

The recent joint U.S.-Afghan raid on two significant al-Qaeda training camps shows not just that Afghanistan is forever descending into conflict, but also that al-Qaeda is as strong now as it was in 2001—and certainly maintains a wider global reach through its affiliates. The two raided camps are not the group’s only ones in Afghanistan, and while the Islamic State is making inroads into the country, al-Qaeda never left. The group still maintains deep ties to the tribal and extremist networks in the country. There is nothing to suggest the group will not continue to strengthen in the near to long-term, given the extent of Afghanistan’s deterioration.

In Yemen, AQAP has survived the loss of al-Wuhayshi and has been given the gift of a brutal proxy war that has destroyed the country, but enhanced the group’s already extensive local ties as it fights alongside Sunni tribes against the Houthis. The U.S. still maintains its drone capability in the country, but that is no match for a longtime terrorist group feeding off a society in collapse.  Likewise in Syria, al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra has withstood a year of limited U.S. airstrikes and attacks from the Islamic State, and continues to be one of the major players in the Syrian civil war. It likely will continue to play a large role in the country even if the war finds a resolution.

In the last year, the Islamic State has also dedicated immense effort to peeling off not just supporters and members of al-Qaeda, but entire affiliates as well. This effort has failed. Despite claims to the contrary, AQIM’s Uqba bin Nafi battalion in Tunisia did not defect to the Islamic State and continues to attack government forces under the banner of al-Qaeda. More high-profile has been the refusal of the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab to defect to the Islamic State, despite repeated overtures and speculation. Last week’s report that a large number of al-Shabaab fighters had joined the Islamic State has turned out to refer to perhaps twenty fighters or less, hardly a groundswell movement.

The intensely localized nature of the al-Qaeda affiliates largely insulates them from the lure of the now infamous Islamic State. The group that was once mocked online by Islamic State supporters for not having land of its own now gets to watch as the Islamic State is forced to defend its self-proclaimed caliphate at high cost. Al-Qaeda’s refusal to morph from a terrorist group into a self-styled state has served it well—even in places like Yemen where it holds considerable power and sway. The group’s insistence on playing the long game has meant that its reach does not exceed its grasp.


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